Dakota Mysteries and Oddities: Prairie fire races toward Davis School
Southwest North Dakota community struck with tragedy in 1914
Belfield, N.D. — The weather report was a scorcher in southwest North Dakota in the mid-fall of 1914. There was little rain, the sun beat harshly on the parched earth, while hot winds swept across the prairie. Conditions were ripe for fire and with so much dry tinder about, it took but a small flame to set off a big fire — and as fate would have it, it did.
A recent prairie fire had burned a 25-mile-long strip from Knife River to Crooked Creek near Fayette, N.D. earlier in the summer, and everyone on the prairie was living in relative fear that a single lightning bolt, tossed cigarette butt or spark from a campfire would end in devastation.
On November 6, as farmers were moving a threshing machine, a spark generated and ignited nearby prairie grass. The farmers involved with the threshing operation tried their best to contain the burning grasses, but the flames continued their spread. The 30 mile per hour winds assured that this fire would be big.
Gladys Hollister was shocked when she peered out her window from inside the single room Davis School to saw rolling smoke growing bigger as the strong winds fanned them in her direction.
She had to make a decision or she and her students could find themselves trapped in the blazing inferno.
Hollister was the sole teacher at Davis School, a small country school located about 12 miles southwest of Belfield. The 13 students she taught liked their popular teacher who had taught at the school for a few years.
Facing the inferno, what was Hollister to do?
Quickly her mind explored the options, remembering a nearby plowed field that the inferno could circle, but hopefully not consume. She made the fateful decision that she and her students would make a run for the field.
During the ensuing confusion, the students ended up going in different directions.
"When they saw the flames swooping down, they all ran panic stricken. The Parish girl, Gladys Davis, and Johnnie Olson were caught on a tongue of land between two fires, but made a dash through the flames and escaped unharmed, save for singed hair," a state newspaper reporter wrote in an article on the fire. "Alfred Walter and Henry Schwartz and Dollie Smith succeeded in reaching some flax stubble and were safe."
These students' individual actions resulted in seven children surviving.
Now, Hollister and six children were desperately left trying to outrun the incoming blaze as the fire continued to race toward the wood framed schoolhouse. Encroaching flames and smoke resulted in added confusion as the group were broken into two smaller groups of students.
Two of the smaller children reportedly huddled together as the flames raced by. Later, rescuers would find them alive — but severely burned.
During the community driven rescue attempt, W. A. Pike would find his own child, a son, sitting in the roadway. There was but a rag of clothing hanging from his wrist and parts of his shoes left unburnt. The little fellow complained that it was, "so hot."
Shortly after rescue by his father, the child succumbed to his injuries according to reports at the time.
With Pike finding his child, that left Hollister and three children to locate. They had been trying to outrun the blaze, but it was getting harder to breathe as the air filled with smoke. Together, the teacher and children saw the recently plowed field they had originally sought and made their attempt.
With their strides and gait wavering as smoke surrounded them on all sides, they persisted.
Frantic with fright the children and teacher had left the school building, a building that would ultimately survive the fire unscathed as the fire swept just to the north of the structure, and waded headlong into an inferno.
"They made superhuman efforts to reach the plowed field, which they thought was their only salvation...falling, overcome by fear and smoke, then up and stumbling over again. But the dense smoke enveloped them, and they were found huddled together, only four rods from the plowed ground and safety," a report later concluded. "Miss Hollister, who was in a most pitiable condition, had 95 per cent of the skin of her body burned and was unconscious, but regained consciousness long enough to say that she realized she made a mistake in leaving the school house, but did as she thought best."
Frank Davis, the director of the Davis School, which was later renamed Rocky Ridge, lived just a few miles from the school building and was among the first at the scene looking for survivors.
"Words cannot describe its horror...The blackened and smoking prairie — the little deserted schoolhouse — the two groups of awestruck children safely beyond the pattern of the fire, and scattered bodies of the victims," he said in a statement at the time. "Here a hand moved, there a head — and again another was past movement. All seven of those burned were totally blinded by the fire...and all save one were lying on their backs, limbs drawn up...nearest the school the teacher and little Rexie Smith. Both barely alive and clinging to ebbing lives."
It is reported that Miss Hollister recognized Davis' voice and asked that she might see her sister before she passed. She was then taken to the schoolhouse where she later succumbed to her injuries — with her sister by her side.
In total the children who perished in the fateful flames would be prepared for funeral and burial at the Belfield cemetery, where their graves are still marked and serve as a reminder to the dangers dry conditions and fire can have.
Their names etched in stone read:
Ernest Geary, 8, son of C.H. Geary;
Alfred Menge, 7, son of William Menge;
Irving (Ernesta) Menge, 10, son of William Menge;
Ruth Evalyn Olson, 13, daughter of Mrs. Evalyn Pike;
Francis F. Pike, 7, son of William Pike;
Rexie E. Smith, 7, son of Mr. & Mrs. Vern Smith
A state newspaper reporter wrote an article that seems a fitting eulogy.
"Today the wintry winds are blowing falling petals from the flowers that are heaped over six new made graves. The breezes are singling the requiem over the children who were burned to death in the recent prairie fire; singing a song of sorrow because of the work done by the wind of Friday in sweeping along the terrible prairie fire to the little schoolhouse in Davis Valley. Side by side, the children now sleep the long sleep, their troubles over, their burns unknown. Four graves, bearing six bodies, shelter all that is mortal, but they are not forgotten..."
Now, we remember.
William "Jack" Jackson is an American author of ten books and a television documentary. He is best known for his Dakota Mysteries and Oddities series which explores unusual events which occurred in North and South Dakota.
Dakota Mysteries and Oddities is a William Jackson registered trademark and provided to The Dickinson Press for publication.